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Robert Drinan, Infanticide, and the "Unthinkable"

Peter Sprigg

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On February 1, I joined perhaps a thousand other mourners in St. Aloysius Church in Washington for the funeral of the Reverend Robert F. Drinan, S.J. Among those eulogizing Fr. Drinan, who represented Massachusetts in Congress from 1971 to 1981, was Sen. Edward Kennedy. He was one of several speakers who mentioned how Congressman Drinan would lovingly and jokingly refer to his aides and volunteers as his “minions.” I smiled—and when Kennedy added that, “decades later, many remain passionately involved in public affairs,” I had to nod in agreement. I should know. I’m one of them.

That may come as a surprise to those more familiar with the work I do now, as vice president for policy of the Family Research Council in Washington. Fr. Drinan was known as one of the most liberal Democrats in Congress during his service there. The Family Research Council, on the other hand, is the most prominent organization of social conservatives in Washington. Needless to say, my political, social, and theological views have evolved (I would say matured) a good deal since 1981.

I am fond of saying that I was a liberal in the 1960s and 1970s because I thought that racial segregation was wrong, the Vietnam War was a failure, and Richard Nixon was a liar; but I became a conservative in the 1980s and 1990s because I became convinced that political correctness was wrong, the Cold War was a success, and Bill Clinton was a liar. That formulation is a bit glib but essentially true.

Fr. Drinan was first elected to Congress on an antiwar platform in 1970. When my family moved to Massachusetts in 1973, when I was a teenager, I was pleased to learn that we would live in Drinan’s district. The first summer I lived there was when Drinan became the first member of Congress to introduce a resolution to impeach Nixon, more than a year before he resigned, and Congressman Drinan was on the House Judiciary Committee that actually returned articles of impeachment the following summer. I was excited to serve an internship in Drinan’s office during a semester of college in Washington in the spring of 1978 and thrilled to land a job in his district office several months after I graduated in 1979.

Then, in May 1980, when I had been working in his office for only four months, we learned the shocking news that Pope John Paul II had ordered Fr. Drinan to step down from office. (I have sometimes seen it erroneously reported that Drinan resigned. In fact, he immediately abandoned his bid for reelection but was permitted to complete his term, which ran until January 1981). I’ve sometimes joked that I may be the only American Baptist ever to lose his job because of an order from the pope.

One thing that Congressman Drinan said during that period has always stayed with me. In the immediate aftermath of the pope’s order, there were several meetings of Drinan supporters to discuss what to do next. I should note that many of his closest political supporters were not Catholic, despite Massachusetts’ large Catholic population. Instead, they were Jewish, Protestant like me, or essentially secular. One of those supporters asked the congressman the question that may have been on the minds of many of them—“Why not just ignore the pope?”

I have never forgotten Drinan’s simple, four-word answer: “That would be unthinkable.”

After leaving Congress, Drinan stayed in Washington to teach at Georgetown University Law Center, something he continued to do right up until his death at age 86. Although he made a name for himself as a foe of the war and of Nixon, it was one of the other issues he worked on in Congress that became his passion in the remaining years of his life—the issue of human rights. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in her eulogy, recalled how Drinan had championed the cause of Jews who wished to emigrate from the Soviet Union:

When the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky was freed after eight years in a Siberian labor camp, it was because of years of advocacy by many. Yet at a reception welcoming him to the United States and the Capitol, Sharansky, surrounded by supporters and admirers, looked to the back so he could find and thank the man who was his major champion—Father Drinan.

Drinan was so strongly identified with the issue of human rights that both Boston College, where he was dean of the law school before being elected to Congress, and Georgetown, where he taught the last twenty-six years of his life, have created faculty chairs in human-rights law named for Drinan. He was the author of several books on human rights, and all five eulogies (plus one homily) at the funeral made reference to this commitment on Drinan’s part.

Yet there was one massive blind spot in Drinan’s vision for human rights—namely, the rights of the unborn. Despite his Catholic faith and his priestly calling, Drinan consistently (or rather, inconsistently) defended the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. The ruling came at the beginning of his second term in Congress, creating a constitutional “right” to abortion. In Congress, he even went so far as to support federal funding for abortion. On this issue, liberal dogma and Democratic orthodoxy demanded—and got—his highest loyalty.

The issue was a thorn in his side throughout his time in Congress. When he died, I dug out my old “Drinan file” and reread the transcript of a fascinating debate on PBS, regarding the role of religion in politics, between Congressman Drinan and the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Drinan was in his final months in office; Falwell was the head of the newly formed Moral Majority. (At the time, I was still on Drinan’s staff. Now, I work for an organization that has had Mr. Falwell as an honored guest speaker at several events).

It’s fascinating to read the exchanges in which Falwell, the fundamentalist Baptist preacher, berates the Jesuit Drinan for his lack of fidelity to Catholic teaching and to papal authority on the issue of abortion. Three times Drinan hides behind the authority of the Supreme Court and the Constitution (as the Court interprets it), and another time simply behind “the law.”

FALWELL: It’s shocking to me that you, a Roman Catholic priest, are part of a church that condemns abortion and calls it murder, as your pope did very courageously in America last year, how you could support federal funding for abortion absolutely in contradiction of everything the Church stands for . . . .

DRINAN: The Supreme Court said that there’s a constitutional right in a couple, or in a woman, to have an abortion. Can the federal government say that we are going to restrict and constrict that particular right? . . .

FALWELL: If the Congress, the Constitution, and the executive branch all legalized abortion, you and I as men of the cloth have a higher authority, in my opinion, and that is almighty God and the Word of God, and the church we represent. And all three in both instances—your church and mine—condemn abortion as the taking of human life, and I cannot see how you could possibly justify your position as a man of the cloth, repudiating the position of your own church, and voting regularly for federal funding of abortion.

DRINAN: I have not repudiated the position of my own church. I’ve said thousands of times that abortion is immoral in my judgment and coming out of my tradition, but that this is oversimplified piety, as if everything that the churches hold must in fact be put into American law. . . . A lot of Catholics in the Congress and throughout the country feel that the state should not deny Medicaid funds to people who are entitled to an abortion under the law. . . .

FALWELL: Your church believes that abortion is murder. . . . Why is it that you don’t support that, and why is [it] that you are constantly voting to pay for something that your church calls immoral? . . .

DRINAN: I think that there’s a constitutional right granted by the highest tribunal of the nation, and that a member of Congress takes an oath to support that Constitution.

FALWELL: Do you take the ruling of a Supreme Court above the authority of the Holy Father? . . . The question is, do you believe that the Supreme Court has more authority than your Holy Father does on this issue?

DRINAN: That’s not the question. The Supreme Court has authority in a field, and . . . we should sustain the Constitution as the Supreme Court has interpreted it, until or unless it’s reversed.

Note how Drinan insists, “I have not repudiated the position of my own church” because “I’ve said thousands of times that abortion is immoral in my judgment and coming out of my tradition . . . .” In a public forum that I once attended in Drinan’s district, he was similarly challenged, and he used even stronger language, declaring that abortion is “infanticide”—but protected by the Constitution.

Even at the time, I—then a moderately liberal, moderately pro-choice Protestant—found this odd. Legalized abortion is possible to defend if one simply denies the humanity of the fetus, but how is it logically possible to argue that the government has no right or power to pass laws against “infanticide”?

Perhaps Drinan did say “thousands of times that abortion is immoral.” One would think that, after leaving Congress and being freed from his sworn oath to uphold the Constitution, he would have had time in the last twenty-six years of his life to say it many more thousands of times, and more firmly. I can’t claim to have followed his post-congressional career closely, but I am aware of no evidence that he did so. Instead, it appears that this blind spot remained, and his advocacy for human rights did not include the most fundamental of them all—the right to life of the unborn.

One piece of evidence for this is the homily he delivered on January 3 at a Mass held for Speaker Pelosi—another liberal Democratic Catholic politician—on the eve of her becoming Speaker of the House. Drinan noted that “for the first time the Speaker is a mother” (not just a woman, mind you, but “a mother”). He went on:

We re-pledge our lives to the love of children. In this regard the Holy See has shown us the way [by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child].

We must continue to be shocked that 31,000 of those children will die today and every day—from diseases and malnutrition that are clearly preventable. . . .

The needs of every child are the needs of Jesus Christ himself. The tragedies of the children of Darfur and the victims of Katrina have made us feel guilty for the neglect of the young people in these nations. . . .

We must also remember the 100 million children who are not enrolled in any school—and that 70 percent of these children are girls.

In addition, children are still being injured by land mines placed by the United States in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam, Kuwait, and elsewhere. . . .

We are ashamed that we have been so careless and thoughtless about the rights of children.

We cannot forget Christ’s personal love of children and his affirmation that “whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren you do for me.” . . .

We pledge again before the Blessed Sacrament that we will deepen our love for all children. . . .

Let us reexamine our convictions, our commitments and our courage. Our convictions and our commitments are clear and certain to us. But do we have the courage to carry them out? . . .

If a plane crashed this afternoon at Dulles with 310 children aboard the whole world would cry and cry and cry.

But a tragedy like that happens 100 times each day–31,000 children every day–needlessly–die because of the heedlessness of all of us.

Of course, between the 310 children who die in Drinan’s hypothetical plane crash and the 31,000 children who die daily around the world from disease and malnutrition, there is another statistic—the 3,000 children who have died each day since 1973 in America’s abortion mills. Yet Drinan’s homily—which Pelosi placed in the Congressional Record at his request—contains no mention of this “infanticide.”

At his funeral, all the words of praise for Drinan’s commitment to “human rights” dripped with unintended irony, when viewed through a pro-life lens. The Reverend Ladislas Orsy, S.J., declared that “he was a voice for those who have no voice.” Georgetown University president John DeGioia said that Drinan “demanded that the government serve all the people” and had held a conviction that “human dignity is not contingent on the whims of the state” but must be protected by government.

Sen. Edward Kennedy noted, “Here on earth, God’s work must be our own” and said that Drinan did that work “armed with moral clarity and courage.” Speaker Pelosi said of Drinan, “It was because of his faith that he was one of our greatest champions for human rights,” and she quoted him as telling Georgetown students “to go forth into society not as mere legal tradesmen, but as moral architects.”

There was one exception to this oblivious omission of life as a human right. The Reverend John Langan, S.J., who delivered the homily, was the only speaker to address the issue of abortion. Langan opened with a quote from the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris:

If any government does not acknowledge the rights of man or violates them, it not only fails in its duty, but its order[s] completely lack juridical force.

Langan noted that “a society built on the practice of rights,” as in America, has served as “a refuge for those who suffered from brutal and destructive social experiments” in other lands. He praised Drinan for “taking up the causes of South African victims of apartheid, of Soviet Jews, of the disenfranchised in Central America and the disappeared in the Southern Cone, and of the Muslims of Darfur,” as well as defending civil liberties at home.

Langan then went on to say: “For the most part, his advocacy of human rights harmonized with the social and moral teaching of the Catholic Church. But it must be acknowledged that on the immensely painful subject of abortion there was sharp conflict.” The “decisive point of disagreement for many Catholic politicians” is “not about the moral issue in itself or about Catholic teaching,” according to Langan, but over the “the appropriate limits of state action” in regulating it. The debate takes place, he said, in “a larger context of common concern for the well-being of women and children.” But the issue of abortion, with which Drinan had to wrestle, showed that “the notion of human rights is not transparent in its content.”

It was not an attack upon Fr. Drinan—but neither was it a ringing defense. I give Fr. Langan great credit for being honest enough to raise the issue at all. When viewed in the context of the quote from Pope John XXIII, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, contrary to Drinan’s public position, the failure to recognize the human rights of the unborn must mean that the “orders” of the U.S. Supreme Court on abortion “lack juridical force.”

A quarter of a century after my relationship with Robert Drinan ended, those two single words I heard him speak are what I remember most. One was his acknowledgment that abortion is “infanticide.” The second was his declaration that with regard to the end of his congressional career, defying the pope would be “unthinkable.” How tragic it is that defying the pope’s teaching on such “infanticide” was not equally “unthinkable.”

Peter Sprigg is vice president for policy at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. He served as economic development assistant to Congressman Robert Drinan (D-MA) in his district office in Waltham, Massachusetts, from 1980 to 1981.

Copyright (c) 2007 First Things (April 2007).

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Posted: 14-May-07



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